By Brian Wise
JOE HENRY – THRUM (earMusic)
Perhaps Joe Henry is better known for his production for other musicians such as Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette, and most recently Joan Baez, or maybe for the recent railroad songs project Shine A Light with Billy Bragg; but he should equally be recognised for his own solo albums which now stretch out to fourteen with this new gorgeous offering.
Not that Henry is ever likely to enjoy chart success; his music is just way too esoteric for that. The upside of this low profile is that he has been able to make the sort of recordings that he wants to make. The template was basically laid out as far back as his third album, the beautiful Shuffletown in 1990, produced by T Bone Burnett and one of the few of Henry’s albums to be released on a major label. Poetic lyrics set against shifting backgrounds accentuated the mood of the songs.
So it is on the new album. Listen to ‘Dark Is Light Enough,’ which ostensibly is a ballad but ends in a quiet frenzy of guitar that is almost avant-garde jazz and you will partly understand Henry’s approach. All is not quite as it seems on the surface.
One of the distinguishing features of a Joe Henry album is that, as a listener, you are required to do some work. It is not all a one way street. While Henry’s music is atmospheric – as opposed to Daniel Lanois’ concept of widescreen sound – it is not to be thought of as something you put on in the background. Like a great jazz album there is too much happening and too much drawing you in. You need to listen multiple times to really get the sense of what is going on. There are no easy hooks here, no parts that will urge you to sing or hum along.
“Within it are songs that I am proud of,” says Henry of the new album. “It was performed, recorded, and mixed to stereo tape –simultaneously and quickly– and features the contributions of some of the deepest musicians I know to be alive and playing, and who happen also to be among my dearest friends – one of them also a son.”
Of course, Henry produced the album but not in his own studio. Instead, it was recorded and mixed ‘live’ to stereo tape by Ryan Freeland at United Recording, Studio B in Hollywood. Apart from Henry on vocals and acoustic guitar the studio ensemble includes his son Levon on all reed parts, long-time associates Jay Bellerose and David Piltch on drums and bass respectively and Patrick Warren on keyboards. Calexico’s Joey Ryan is a guest on backing vocals. There is even a string section and pedal steel yet the sound remains relatively sparse. Every song has a brief instrumental introduction to set the scene whether bass, guitar, clarinet or a combination.
“It has been suggested by a few who have already taken the ride that the songs might be…political, in regard to their concerns,” says Henry of the lyrics. “But while I would never argue anyone’s interpretations, I will say that I think every song that endures or aspires to is rather, by its very nature, a ‘love song.’ I don’t believe in any other kind. I mean, no one writes songs about the government – certainly not me. We write about proximity: me to you; us to god; hope to fear; darkness to next light; our sparking lives to a perceived finish of them. And in so doing, all else and all of us are included; covered.”
In writing about the album’s sonic landscape Henry claims that one of the recordings he was inspired by was ‘a particular Ray Charles album recorded live at the Olympia Civic Theatre in Los Angeles in 1964, wherein his voice throughout threatens the authority of the audio equipment employed to limit its dynamic volatility.’ Wow!
I am reminded more of the recent and magnificent Charles Lloyd & The Marvels album I Long To See You, featuring Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz on guitars, which has the power to haunt. It is that same power that Thrum channels so perfectly.